Drinking Like a Swimmer

Apr 29, 2016

From Grant Hackett to Michael Phelps to countless others, a swimmer’s relationship with booze can be a complicated thing… 

Grant Hackett has a problem. I don’t mean an alcohol or a pill problem, those are just symptoms. It seems to me he has a lack-of-moderation problem. Which is to say, he has a swimmer problem.

On April 17th Hackett faced some unfortunate humiliation when he ‘tweaked the nipple’ of the guy in front of him after the 6’6″ Hackett objected to the passenger reclining his seat. Giving unsolicited titty-twisters to strangers aboard aircraft is generally inadvisable. In fact, no good is likely to come of it. Particularly if you’re shit-faced and you’re a public figure. No good came of this.

Not for the first time, Hackett was looped in public and found himself explaining some seriously embarrassing behavior. In February 2014, he was seen in the late night hours of a Melbourne hotel, mostly naked, very confused, searching for his four-year-old son. A couple days later he checked himself into rehab, citing a dependance to a drug called Stillnox – aka Ambien. (A drug it must be noted that is reputedly used widely by elite swimmers to help them adjust to jet lag when competing internationally…)

Like Michael Phelps in the wake of his substance-sparked mishaps, Hackett has always appeared afterwards contrite and taking full responsibility for his actions. I don’t know the man, but I know that he is beloved in and out of the sport, and commands about as much respect from his peers as any swimmer alive. It’s a damn shame that the most frequent adjective before his name these days is “troubled.”

Yet his troubles aren’t exactly surprising. Due to our rather extreme wiring, many swimmers have a very hard time with the m-word. In the dry land world, moderation is a prized quality. For swimmers, moderation seems to imply just doing enough. Enough to feel good, but not really going for it. In the pool, who respects that? And so, when swimmers climb out and crack one open, things can often get out of hand. Particularly when we dry off for good, or what seems like for good, and face a life without morning workouts or meets looming on the horizon.

My first job out of college was as a fact-checker at Rolling Stone magazine. I started about three months after hanging up the goggles at my last meet. I was still reeling, untethered from the defining discipline of my life. I wasn’t coping terribly well. I also had a nagging insecurity about my very un-rock n’ roll lifestyle prior to arriving at a place that took more pride in staying awake through the dawn than rising with it. A few weeks after I started one of the music editors stopped by my desk.

“I heard you used to be a swimmer,” he said.

“Until recently,” I said.

“Man, the swimmers I went to school with were fucking madmen,” he told me. “You didn’t see them out much, but when you did, they went hard.”

“That sounds about right,” I said.

The next time I was out at a bar with that editor I made sure I fulfilled his perception. Not that I needed the encouragement. He was right. The swimmers I went to school with were madmen too. Even if you didn’t see us out very often. Certain ones anyway. The masochists, the ones that seemed to have a screw loose in workouts. The ones that swam the mile and the 400 IM, they were the worst. My people.

So, can it come as much of a surprise that the greatest miler and the greatest 400 IMer in history have faced their own challenges with moderation and booze?

This week Michael Phelps was on the Today Show, with the Rio Games 100 days out. In an interview with Matt Lauer, he was asked yet again about his struggles with alcohol, asked if he was an alcoholic. His response was the same as ever. To paraphrase: I don’t know if I’m an alcoholic, but I know I had some problems that needed a hard look. It’s a reply I can relate to – more than I’d like to admit. It’s also a sentiment shared by more fellow swimmers – and athletes of all stripes – than he probably realizes.

Phelps and Hackett are both quintessential swimmers. In bold relief, their achievements and their struggles mirror a million others. They’ve put in obscene amounts of work and seen it all pay off when it came time to taper and shave. You don’t need to hear the national anthem played in your honor to relate to that. Nor do you need the public humiliation of a DUI or a dazed incident in a hotel lobby, or a tweaked nipple for Christ’s sake, to relate to the struggles of reining it in when you’re all dried off.

Plenty is made of all the fine admirable qualities that swimmers embody. The work ethic, the sacrifice, the long term goal setting… That’s all lovely. But not much is made of the not-so-fine compulsions that are also bred into us. The need for extremes, the isolation, the inherent selfishness… Those are all there too. When champions like Hackett and Phelps get in trouble, it’s amazing how quickly they’re made to feel other. They’re troubled; they’re spoiled; they’re entitled. Maybe that’s all true, but it’s also true that their behavior in these moments of weakness isn’t all that abnormal.

They’re swimmers, after all.